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Industrial warfare

President's perspective

We are entering the post-general election phase. The federal government is preparing for blitzkrieg after 1st July and the Labor opposition is engaging in fewer personality-focused pirouettes as they face up to the battle ahead.

The Evatt Foundation will play its role in creating an informed debate within the community and labour movements.

There is no room for complacency because the Business Council of Australia, which represents the top 100 companies, has never been more aggressive as it seeks to shape Australia in its own image.

Peter Costello is attacking the states on the GST to draw attention from the federal government's problems. The threat of interest rate increases and the growing trade deficit has been exacerbated in the last month, as the pressure mounts on the coming budget.

The turmoil in the Coalition has not become the crisis story it is because the Murdoch press, collectively, and the Financial Review are the chief cheerleaders for the competing corporate agendas. Imagine a Labor government being dictated to by the trade unions in this way. What they would say?

The assessment by the ACTU executive at its March meeting was that the Howard government is on an ideological offensive. The main threat is that the government will use its corporate powers to take over the states' industrial relations system of arbitration.

This threatens the security of all state employees, and also the vast category of people who for historic reasons have been registered under the various state systems.

It will be hard for many people to realise how this threatens their security. The workplace arrangements built up over many years of negotiation will be on the line in the next two years.

The Evatt Foundation has organised a Breakfast Seminar on Thursday 26th May, which will be addressed by John Della Bosca, the New South Wales Minister for Commerce and Industrial Relations, on how New South Wales is effected. The position of the Australian Council of Trade Unions will be put by Doug Cameron.

"Vote to stop abortion; receive a rollback in capital gains taxes. Vote to make our country strong again; receive de-industrialization. Vote to screw those politically correct college professors; receive electricity deregulation. Vote to get government off our backs; receive conglomeration and monopoly everywhere from media to meatpacking. Vote to stand tall against terrorists; receive Social Security privatisation. Vote to strike a blow against elitism; receive a social order in which wealth is more concentrated than ever before in our lifetimes, in which workers have been stripped of power and CEOs are rewarded in a manner beyond imagining."

Corporate Strategy: the History

The big business strategy of imposing an American-style industrial relations system became public in the early eighties, when the Minister for Industrial Relations, Ian Viner, declared at a meeting of the US Chamber of Commerce in Australia that he would introduce the principles of the US system, particularly individual contracts.

The labour movement was in an assertive phase and Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser, facing a deteriorating situation, transferred Ian Viner out of the industrial relations portfolio.

In the same time frame, an off-the-record meeting was held in Melbourne of leading corporate interests led by companies like Shell. This strategy meeting was addressed by Allan Carroll, who said to the assembled business leaders and embedded journalists:

We want to set the political environment against what I think is a very important ideology and one that I believe is represented in this room. I call it corporatism: that's the ideology I think that we represent, certainly those of us who work for large companies.

He went on to say that corporatism was a very different philosophy than the classic free-enterprise principles that many of them believed in. Mr Carroll was dismissive of the Fraser government, saying: 'Not one of the 26 ministers in the Cabinet has ever met a payroll, not one. There is enormous wealth in the Cabinet, the inner Cabinet of 14, I'll just leave it with you that the vast majority are millionaires, most of them got it from daddy.'

He then went on to show that the economic rationalists in the Labor shadow ministry were a better lot for corporate Australia than the Coalition conservatives. Caroll drew a plan of how, what would now be called the aspirational voters, would be brought into the political process to achieve his ends.

Corporate Australia has indeed benefited from the policy directions of the 1980s and 1990s, but in this month's Evatt Newsletter, John Quiggin concludes that the evidence is now in, and the widely propounded benefits for Australia from so-called economic rationalism were largely figments of the imagination of the handmaidens of government ideology.

The current attack

The Howard government is now giving its industrial relations offensive a 'nationalist' twist, which is worrying many conservative supporters. This is exactly the same sort of concern American conservatives have with George Bush and his neocons, who seek use their power ruthlessly without concern for the inevitable destructive consequences.

John Howard has all of his usual weasel words, 'promoting freedom of choice' and 'flexibility'. This 'freeing' of the individuals from their state awards would have a disastrous effect on the minimum wages of some of the most vulnerable people in our society.

The 'roping in' provisions of state awards protect employees of new and small businesses across the state by establishing fair minimum rates. This also protects the existing business from unfair sweatshop competitors that can lead rates and conditions to the bottom, very quickly.

The second front of the Howard attack is to take away from the Australian Industrial Relations Commission the right to set fair minimum wages.

This is all designed to slow wages growth for the eighty per cent of people whose income reflects these general wage movements.

Old age pensioners will also be affected because their pensions rely on the general movement of average weekly earnings. Evatt Foundation Executive Committee member, Warwick McDonald, in his article 'Curtailing worker rights', asserts that the workplace could soon resemble TV's 'Survivor' program. Warwick is well placed to make the analysis as a former Director General of the New South Wales Department of Industrial Relations.

It is impossible to predict how intense the coming conflict will become. Much will depend on the extent to which the government decides to play the labour agenda as a symbolic political stunt, and the extent to which it has remaining regard for arrriving at the best outcomes for citizens.

At the outside, political strikes may once again loom on the horizon. In this month's Evatt Newsletter, Chris White surveys the arguments about direct action for political reasons, and finds much support, including support from right-wing stances on occasions. This is a topic many at or near the labour movement leadership will wish to be briefed on.

The good & bad in labour history

The Evatt Foundation held a Breakfast Seminar on Thursday 21st April at the Sydney Mechanics Schoool of Arts, where Dr John Edwards spoke on his new book on legendary Labor Prime Minister John Curtin, Curtin's Gift. John asserted that Curtin was one of our most economically literate leaders, a legacy that has been overlooked because of overblown claims about his 'warlord' status.

At the same time, it has been appropriate to consider the lessons that can be learnt from 'the split' in the Labor Party fifty years after Dr Evatt exposed the subversive role of 'the movement' led by B A Santamaria. In the Sydney Morning Herald, Gerard Henderson, Executive Director of the Sydney Institute, recently came out with the traditional attack on Dr Evatt made by people sympathetic to the movement: it's all Evatt's fault.

In defence of the Doc, I suggest anyone who has doubts read the Foundation's recently published article by Arthur Gietzelt. Arthur shows the long-standing attempts by Santamaria and his supporters to take over the Labor Party, using Catholic people and the support of sections of the Catholic Hierarchy.

It is to be hoped that the recent Labour History Conference at Victorian Parliament House will succeed in publishing more research to correct the false Santamaria-orthodoxy. The perpetual attempt to use Dr Evatt's illness, in his later years, to disparage his heroic exposure of the movement in 1955 is a disgraceful cover up.

Fifty years later, it is amazing that the attempt by religious leaders to determine the political agenda is again a main event. President Bush leads the way in the United States, with his religious right support, which delivers the numbers for his real 'base' - the large corporations.

This process is well described by author Thomas Frank in his book What's The Matter With America: The Resistable Rise of the American Right. Frank shows how people who were not well off were voting Republican, often against their economic interest, in the non-coastal areas of America. He shows how the Republicans use religion. 'They may talk Christ, but they walk with corporate values'.

John Howard is closely following the Republican model. Note how familiar this extract is from Frank's book:

The trick never ages; the illusion never wears off. Vote to stop abortion; receive a rollback in capital gains taxes. Vote to make our country strong again; receive de-industrialization. Vote to screw those politically correct college professors; receive electricity deregulation. Vote to get government off our backs; receive conglomeration and monopoly everywhere from media to meatpacking. Vote to stand tall against terrorists; receive Social Security privatisation. Vote to strike a blow against elitism; receive a social order in which wealth is more concentrated than ever before in our lifetimes, in which workers have been stripped of power and CEOs are rewarded in a manner beyond imagining.

Labor and the future

In 1965 Gough Whitlam asked Sol Encel to gather together some intellectuals to give Labor advice on policy. This was before the National Labor Party had policy committees. Professor Encel was a vice President of the Evatt Foundation for many years and in the last forty years has contributed to policy development on a range of topics. His article published in this month's Newsletter, Labor and the Future, shows the need for both new ideas and structural democracy.

In February I argued that issue of Climate Change would dominate the political agenda, as the consequences of the Howard government's failure to adopt Kyoto become clear. The Opposition spokesman on the Environment Anthony Albanese MP outlines his view on the solution to this problem this month in his article "The heat is on".

By way of contrast, Stewart Prins seeks to define the elusive thing called 'political vision', in this case the story of the late Premier of 'New' Tasmania, Jim Bacon, and the state's economy. In "Rhetoric and reality in the New Tasmania: Unlocking Tasmania's economic renaissance", the answer, at least to some extent, concludes Stewart, is the culture, stupid.

The Drug Problem

The Evatt Foundation had a very successful social fund raiser that yielded over $3000. The co-authors of How to Kill a Country, Professor Linda Weiss, Dr Elizabeth Thurbon and Professor John Mathews, discussed why they wrote their book on the United States Free Trade Agreement. An account of their talk is published this month.

The section of their analysis on the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme, PBS) is particularly pertinent as the crisis develops on the cost and efficiency of major drugs. In my February perspective, in the section "Taking on the drug barons", I detailed the close links between the Bush Administration and the major drug companies. The scandals surrounding the drugs Vioxx and Celebrex show that just as President Bush allowed the drug companies to dominate the US regulator the FDA and allow expensive and dangerous drugs onto the market, death has been the result.

In the United States, a recent Four Corners program reveals, the death toll represents the equivalent of 500 to 800 plane loads dropping out of the sky, according the program screened on the ABC on April 11, "Total Recall".

And there is an Australian connection; it is the Wooldridge-Howard connection. The Labor opposition attached the close links between the Health Minister, Michael Wooldridge and Pfizer, three of his former personal staff worked for Pfizer. Health Minister Wooldridge promoted Celebrex when it was listed by the PBAC as 'the most important decision in the 50 year history of the PBAC.' This was despite the fact that by then the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) had received some 1000 reports of long term harmful side effects, almost twice as many as any other drug in the TGA's history. Michael Wooldridge ignored the TGA's advice about the pricing of Celebrex and Vioxx and gave a windfall profit of $150 million to the companies Pfizer, Merck and Pharmacia. In September 1999, Pfizer took out a full-page advertisement in the Economist Magazine promoting a speech made by Wooldridge promoting Celebrex.

Continuing the fine tradition, the current Minister for Health, Tony Abbott will give a 2005 Post Budget Briefing organised by the Australian Institute of Political Science on Wednesday 11 May at the Art Gallery of NSW: SPONSORED BY PFIZER. The families of Australians who have died arising from Vioxx and Celebrex should now insist on an enquiry into the influence of the Bennelong Group of Pharmaceutical Companies on John Howard and his Health Minister.

Finally, we hope readers enjoy the fine essay on the curious case of Christopher Hitchens by George Scialabba. Don't forget to fill in our supporters survey, and, until next time, stay active.

Bruce Childs


Evatt Foundation


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